Rights, right and might: unravelling the Syria vote

I don’t agree with the decision to bomb Syria, and I probably never will. I do continue to support Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats. At a time when Lib Dems are sharply divided over what the vote should have been, I want to unpack for a moment the democratic mandate for it, and why I believe that, although it was not (in my view) the right decision, those that made it had the right to decide as they did.

In the dialogue Protagoras, the philosopher Socrates explains why he does not believe that there should be ‘sophists’. The sophists he attacks were professional wise men, pundits whose wisdom could be taken as authoritative. His argument was that, while in most cases we call an expert in a particular field, when we make major decisions for the state, the entire assembly decides together, and each person gets to make their speech.

Socrates is describing a Greek city-state where all adult, free men (thus, in fact, quite a small proportion of all adults) form the assembly, and the assembly decides together what should be done.

Our democracy is substantially more complex than that, and for very good reasons. However, the underlying point still stands: in great questions of the state, no one individual, nor group of pundits, is wise enough to answer the questions alone. It is in debate that we find our way forward.

One of the most fundamental requirements for a worthwhile debate is that there is at least the possibility of people changing their minds. If we are not open to persuasion, then we are not part of democratic debate.

However, for those watching from the sidelines — especially for those actively supporting one of the groups within the debate — this means that there is a real possibility that the people we supported, backed and worked to elect will make choices that we disagree with. They may even make choices which seem to us utterly wrong and nonsensical. Nonetheless, without the possibility of this, there is no debate, and there is no democracy.

A debate and a vote on their own is insufficient for a thing to be democratic. There are three tests which should always be applied. First, were the debate and subsequent vote conducted fairly, according to previously agreed processes which do not prejudice the outcome? Second, did the people voting have the authority to do so? Third, was sufficient time for the debate given, and sufficient information to the debaters for the decision reached to be an informed and considered one?

This third point is one which frequently baffles observers of our parliament. The most common way for a private member’s bill to fail is for it to be ‘talked out’ — the debate goes on to the limit of the allotted time, and there is no time left for the vote. In any kind of Board or executive meeting, the chair would have drawn matters to a close so that a vote could take place. In a policy debate at a Liberal Democrat party conference, once the time for the debate was finished, a vote would take place. However, the parliamentary rule is that sufficient time must be given for members to express their views. We can argue (I think sometimes correctly) that this is abused when MPs opposing an otherwise popular motion (or popular with those present and likely to vote) make extended, long-winded and only marginally topical speeches for this purpose. Nonetheless, the alternative, that business could be rushed through and ill-considered decisions made in haste with unexpected consequences, is worse.

The second point was the crux of Liberal Democrat opposition to the second Iraq war. For better or for worse, the recognised international authority to engage in acts of war, except under direct attack by an enemy, is a United Nations mandate. No mandate was ever given for the second Iraq war. Therefore, irrespective of whether, from a utilitarian perspective, the war would result in more lives saved or more lives lost, the British government did not have the legal right to go to war.

This in itself raises all kinds of notions about national sovereignty. However, since Britain has long championed the international rule of law, we are right to ask very serious questions not only about whether we were right to go to war for the second time in Iraq (a question which should have been debated in parliament) but whether we had the right — a question to be settled by legal processes before the decision, not after it.

In the current crisis, there is an emotional response on the second point as well. We (that is, a bit more than 50% of Liberal Democrats who voted in the leadership election) elected Tim Farron, therefore should he not pay more attention to what we think? Of course, we recognise there are divided loyalties on this issue. Six Liberal Democrat MPs voted to extend air strikes into Syria, two did not. Each of those MPs was elected not by the Liberal Democrats (though they were each selected at some point by a majority of local party members) but by their own constituents. Should they therefore not be polling their constituents, and us, to find out what they should do?

No.

There is no realistic way of polling Liberal Democrats. We certainly aren’t going to hand over our membership database to YouGov, and we lack the polling machinery to conduct our own poll, though we do do surveys from time to time. 1 Where polls of Liberal Democrats have been published, they are polls of people who self-identify to the pollsters as Liberal Democrat supporters. Constituency polling is equally fraught, but for different reasons. In the recent and infamous Sun poll, 1/5 Muslims were alleged to have sympathy with Jihadis. However, as Survation, the company who did the polling pointed out, this was a complete misrepresentation of the results of the poll. Further reflection showed that the question was meaningless in that regard, because it did not distinguish between ‘feel in a similar way’ and ‘feel sorry for’.

The only legitimate way to find out what the public really thinks is in a referendum. Referendums are core to Swiss democracy, which resembles much more closely the demokratia of ancient Athens, but generally foreign to British democracy. They fall foul of test number three: sufficient time for the debate, and sufficient information available to the debaters. In the Scotland referendum, the opposing sides presented wildly differing indications of the economic impact of secession. We can have our own view of which side presented the more accurate information, but most voters were forced to make their own minds upon who they chose to believe: actual, established information, authoritatively condensed to the level that an educated and interested lay-person could follow, was not available. This is not particularly a problem with the Scottish referendum, but with referendums in general, and is one of the main reasons for having a representative, parliamentary democracy.

Such things are particularly the case with a decision to go to war. Without considering the impact of secret intelligence, such as was used to draw up the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ of the second Gulf War, parliamentarians have access to a range of political, military and strategic analysis which it is their full time job and duty to digest. Some of this comes out in the public debate, but all of it informs the debate—much of which takes place informally before the parliamentary debate begins.

The reason that a representative, parliamentary democracy is better than a universal, referendum-based democracy, is that we employ the parliamentarians to invest themselves in the proper information so that the debate can be legitimate—and only those involved in the debate (by virtue of being present in the chamber) are given the opportunity to vote.

Not in my name

But this brings us to a problem. If, when we elect an MP, or elect a leader of a party, we are handing over the authority to make a decision which we fundamentally disagree with, what then? The decision to bomb Syria was not one to be taken lightly by anyone. There will be people at either end of the spectrum whose positions are so established that there is little likelihood of them shifting, but, in the centre there was a significant number who could have gone either way—so much so that, last weekend, the government did not believe it had enough votes to win. Among Liberal Democrat supporters, one poll put support for bombing at 46%, though that was a snapshot of one particular time. Are the 54%, or whatever the figure of those opposing was or is, now tarred by that decision? Should people who voted for Tim Farron but are deeply opposed to bombing Syria now consider their membership?

No.

No decision that parliamentarians make is made in our names. They are made in their own names, which is why it is the name of the individual that goes on the ballot paper at a General Election, and only subsequently (and relatively recently) the name of the party for which they are standing.

If Tim Farron had stood on a platform of ‘tough action in the Middle East’, but had garnered votes from people opposed to that kind of rhetoric, they might well need to go through a period of soul-searching. I have previously urged people who voted Conservative, but simply did not believe some of the commitments to further austerity that the Conservatives made, and now regret it, to go through exactly such an exercise. On the other hand, if Tim Farron had stood on a platform of ‘bombing never solved anything’, then there would be legitimate reasons to call for his resignation, or, at least, to trigger a leadership contest.

Neither are the case here. What parliament has collectively chosen to do is a matter for the consciences of each person who cast their vote. It does not make us complicit, unless they promised to do what they have now done before we elected them.

Rights, right and might

I still don’t see how adding Royal Air Force capability to the existing forces bombing Syria improves the situation, nor what realistic and effective strategy we have for dealing with Daesh (ISIS).

To some extent, I don’t expect to. I recently had a conversation with an analyst about the military situation elsewhere. I was staggered, as I always am by these conversations, to learn how little my knowledge of the situation — garnered from what I hold to be an intelligent and informed approach to media reports — tallied with what was really happening. To be fair, and as he told me, all the information was out there, in the public domain, freely available. I had simply not considered the implications of the facts. Equally, I wouldn’t expect our military strategy for Daesh to be made common knowledge, as that would invalidate it as a strategy.

I am persuaded that Parliament — including Tim Farron and five of his Liberal Democrat colleagues — had the democratic right to make the decision they made yesterday. Crucial in this is that there was already a UN mandate, and a proper debate took place. Neither of these were the case for the second Iraq war.

I am not persuaded that they made the right decision—though I accept that either decision would have had far-reaching consequences which could not be known or calculated beforehand.

If the Liberal Democrat MPs had made a decision which I believed they had no right to make, then I would have felt obligated to withdraw my support from them. Because they made a decision which they had a right to make, though not the decision I favoured, I will continue to support them.

We now move on to the critical question, which can only be answered by events. Will the extension of British military might (and Britain is, by many assessments, still the 5th largest military power in the world) save lives or destroy them? Will we properly accept our responsibilities, already laid out in the international protocol on refugees to which we are signatories, to play a full part in sheltering those displaced by this war? Will yesterday’s decision have an impact on our peaceful existence on these islands?

We wait to see.

Show 1 footnote

  1. A properly conducted poll is of a carefully constituted sample, weighted in such a way that it creates a statistically valid indication of the result. A survey is a much broader questionnaire, typically for the Liberal Democrats to all members, reliant on who chooses to respond. Despite the much larger numbers involved, a survey is far more likely to be dependent on response-bias, the artefact of giving more weight to those interested enough to reply.

Back to Top